Huge protest over large dams in Lesotho

Transformation Resource Centre, IRN, Environmental Monitoring Group
November 26, 2001

PRESS RELEASE: Transformation Resource Centre (Lesotho), International Rivers Network, and Environmental Monitoring Group (RSA)

More than 2000 demonstrators converged on three major dams in Lesotho on November 19 during a massive coordinated protest. Police responded violently at Mohale Dam, injuring three elderly women. The demonstrators, all impacted by the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), were protesting the lack of fair compensation for property lost to the dams, and unfulfilled promises of development in affected communities. They demanded to receive a ten-percent share of royalties generated from the dams and a commission of inquiry into the project’s impacts on local people. In a petition that they delivered to project authorities during the protest, the protesters state, “We have tried by all possible means to get a fair and reasonable compensation for our property–but this was all a fiasco. We were promised development–but this has not materialized to date.”

The World Bank-funded LHWP is the most massive infrastructure project in sub-Saharan Africa. The US$5 billion project is designed to divert water from Lesotho to the urban and industrial Gauteng region in South Africa through a series of dams and tunnels blasted through the Maloti Mountains. The first three major dams in the six-dam scheme affected 27,000 people. Approximately 2000 of them were resettled.

Discontent stemming from the large involuntary resettlement and compensation program has plagued the project since its inception. Local communities, who depended on subsistence farming prior to the project, have been left bereft of land and struggle to survive on annual compensation deliveries. In community meetings and petitions, affected people have repeatedly pressed for a greater voice in project decision-making and a more equitable distribution of project benefits. This week’s protests, however, marked the first time communities have demonstrated in such large, coordinated numbers.

Crowds of 1000 affected people gathered at both Katse and Mohale Dams on Monday, while 300 more marched at Muela Dam. They marched and sang protest songs before delivering the petitions containing their grievances. At Mohale Dam, they rolled large stones onto project access roads, briefly stopping construction at the site. Mohale police, angered that some protesters failed to gather at pre-agreed marching areas, assaulted a group of demonstrators with batons and whips. Three elderly women required medical attention after being beaten about the face and back.

“This lashing of defenseless old women was unprovoked,” said Jacob Lenka, a community worker with the local human rights organization, Transformation Resource Centre (TRC). “While some community members may have misjudged where they were to march, it did not warrant this police brutality.”

Elsewhere, a planned demonstration of resettled people in the Lesotho capital, Maseru, was postponed because police refused to grant permission for the protest.

“These protests show that affected people are running out of patience,” said TRC Coordinator Motseoa Senyane, “The World Bank and other project authorities have not adequately addressed the communities’ concerns in the past. It is time that they do so.”

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